The Neuroscience of Christmas Caroling


As you’re reading the title, you might be asking yourself: “Really, there’s a neuroscience of Christmas caroling? What’s there to neuroscience about? It’s just singing some silly songs about that silly figgy pudding to pass the time before you can finally sit down and eat said figgy pudding. I mean, yeah, sure, it does seem to warm your soul, but then again, maybe that’s just from all the mulled wine.” The short answer is yes, there absolutely is a neuroscience of Christmas caroling (and other types of group singing), because that “warm soul” feeling doesn’t come (just) from the mulled wine. It comes from your brain and from a cute little hormone that’s all the buzz nowadays, namely oxytocin.

Oxytocin, otherwise known as the “love hormone”, is a type of hormone produced by a portion of your brain called the hypothalamus. Perhaps the most well-known function of this small molecule is the facilitation of childbirth. But oxytocin does so much more than that. Numerous studies have shown to be involved in many complex human social behaviours, such as empathy, trust and generosity, suppression of anxiety, and social bonding.

At the same time, studies investigating effects of group singing compared to solo singing have found that the former leads to increased prosocial behaviour and bonding. Since these are some of the behaviours for which oxytocin is responsible, it made sense to check whether oxytocin and group singing are in any way related. For that, researchers followed two lines of reasoning.

In the first place, researchers checked whether the oxytonergic system (the one responsible for producing oxytocin in the brain), group singing, and engaging in prosocial behaviours share similar brain regions. The underlying assumption in this case is that, if they do, then there is a possible interaction between the three. For example, activating the oxytonergic system might lead to prosocial behaviour, while group singing might activate the oxytonergic system (which, in turn, increases prosocial behaviours). Scientists did find quite a few regions which are shared between the three, such as the hippocampus, amygdala, or nucleus accumbens. These regions are part of something we’ve mentioned before, i.e. the limbic system, which has been consistenly shown to play a role in emotion and social processing, among others. However, this evidence is not sufficient to claim a definite relationship between oxytocin and group singing. On the one hand, there are many other functions which have been associated with these brain areas (such as motivation, learning, and memory). On the other hand, this is only correlational evidence, which means that we cannot say exactly if group singing leads to increased oxytocin or increased oxytocin makes people suddenly want to be part of a musical.

So scientists moved on to the second line of reasoning: does group singing cause oxytocin levels in the body to increase? Unfortunately, this is where things get a little bit murky: studies reported conflicting results, i.e. either increases or decreases in oxytocin levels after group singing. At first glance, this doesn’t make much sense, but there is a good explanation for these results.

There are two options to measure oxytocin concentrations in the body: centrally (i.e., in the central nervous system, for example by taking a sample of the cerebrospinal fluid) or peripherally (in the blood or saliva). As you can imagine, the first option is a lot harder, because it is more invasive (one would have to use a really big needle to extract fluid from the spine), so most studies go with the saliva option. And that’s a problem, because the peripheral oxytocin concentration doesn’t always reflect the concentration in the brain. To make matters worse, peripheral oxytocin is not only released in response to pleasurable events, but also in response to stress (think childbirth, when oxytocin is released to make you feel better about the whole thing). That means, if researchers do not appropriately control for stress levels (maybe someone feels extra-stressed when singing together with strangers), this will affect the results of their study.

Now what’s the bottom line? Is oxytocin warming your soul when you sing with others or not? To put it simply: most likely. There is a lot of evidence which points in this direction. First of all, both oxytocin and group singing lead to increased prosocial behaviour and bonding. Secondly, there are shared brain areas between the oxytonergic system, group singing, and prosocial behaviour. And thirdly, group singing does affect peripheral oxytocin levels. However, the effect of stress still needs to be ironed out in the last point, and, ideally, studies measuring directly central oxytocin concentrations will bring the definite proof we need.

So there you have it: not only is there a neuroscience of Christmas caroling, but it’s also quite complicated. Still, if this article stressed you out, at least you know you can reduce that stress through an impromptu “Jingle Bells” session with your loved ones.

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Links Between the Neurobiology of Oxytocin and Human Musicality

Psychobiological Effects of Choral Singing on Affective State, Social Connectedness, and Stress: Influences of Singing Activity and Time Course

Choir versus Solo Singing: Effects on Mood, and Salivary Oxytocin and Cortisol Concentrations

The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin

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